BEIRUT – Syria has received its first shipment of long-range S-300 air defense missiles from Russia, President Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying Thursday, raising the specter of further Israeli intervention in the two-year conflict.
“Syria has received the first shipment of Russian antiaircraft S-300 rockets,” he said, according to leaked excerpts of a prerecorded interview with al-Manar television, a mouthpiece for Lebanon’s Shiite militant movement Hezbollah. Assad added that more missiles are due to arrive soon.
The Israeli government had no comment Thursday on Assad’s claim, but military experts were skeptical.
“I’m not aware of any evidence substantiating it,” said Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces. “Did missiles arrive? Did radar arrive? It is a system, with very large missiles, very hard to hide, and very heavy launchers.”
Herzog said the Russians would likely ship the S-300 system by breaking down the components. “It would take many months for everything to arrive, and then they would have to assemble it,” he said.
Israeli officials have indicated that they would take action to ensure that the missile system, which has a range of 210 km — roughly the distance from Damascus to Tel Aviv — does not become operational. The presence of the surface-to-air missiles in the region also would raise fears in Tel Aviv that the technology could be passed to Hezbollah, a long-standing enemy of Israel.
Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria in recent months. The targets have included a weapons convoy that it claimed was transferring weapons to Hezbollah, which has been sending fighters to Syria to bolster Assad’s forces. The presence of S-300 missiles, one of the most advanced surface-to-air missile systems in the world, would threaten Israel’s ability to carry out similar operations in the future.
In the television interview, due to be broadcast Thursday evening, Assad also warned that Syria would act against any new Israeli aggression “immediately,” according to the excerpts published in Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah newspaper, al-Akhbar.
The comments could be an attempt by Assad to project an image of military strength, analysts said, and there was no immediate confirmation that the missiles had arrived. However, Russia has vowed to deliver the S-300s despite calls from the United States, Israel and France to halt the sale.
Assad also said his government was prepared to attend a planned peace conference in Geneva next month, and he called on the Syrian opposition to negotiate without preconditions.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition said Thursday it will not participate in the talks until forces backing Assad end their siege of Qusair, a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border.
“The National Coalition will not take part in any international conference or any such efforts so long as the militias of Iran and Hezbollah continue their invasion of Syria,” George Sabra, the acting head of the coalition, told reporters in Istanbul, according to comments broadcast on al-Jazeera.
The announcement comes as a setback for the United States, which has been leading efforts to get the fractured Syrian opposition to the negotiating table. The coalition had said earlier that it would attend only if negotiations took place under a framework that led to Assad’s departure from power.
Sabra called for international intervention to stop the bloodshed in Qusair. Hezbollah fighters have been leading the assault on the strategically important town.
In Israel, skeptics about Assad’s claim to have received S-300 missiles included Yiftah Shapir, director of the military balance project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, who has studied the S-300 extensively. He wrote recently that “it is highly doubtful that the Syrian army, in its current situation, is able to invest the manpower and resources” to learn how to use the S-300.
In any case, Shapir said, it would also take the Syrians at least three to six months to learn how to operate the system.
“Maybe nothing has arrived, and maybe something has arrived,” Herzog said. “But the important thing for Israel is that the Russians say they are sending it. This is a strategically significant weapon that changes the equation in very dangerous ways. It cannot be ignored.”
Israeli officials have expressed grave concerns about what the air defense system would mean to Israel.
Speaking on Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said: “At this stage I can’t say there is an escalation. The deliveries have not taken place; I can attest to this, and I hope they do not. But if, by some misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do.”
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday called Israel “the most threatened state in the world. Around us are tens of thousands of missiles and rockets that could hit our home front.”
Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in May in an effort to dissuade him from selling advanced antiaircraft missile batteries to Syria.
Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror told a meeting of 27 European Union ambassadors earlier this week that Israel would not try to stop the delivery of the S-300s from Russia, but would attempt to stop the state-of-the-art system from being made operational, according to an account in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The S-300 battery is similar to the Patriot system used by the U.S. military. It combines sophisticated radar capable of tracking multiple aircraft. Depending on the model, it can fire highly accurate missiles with ranges of more than 160 km.
Military experts in Israeli worry that Assad could use the system to deny Israeli warplanes the relatively easy access they now have to the skies above Syria and Lebanon. Earlier this month, Israeli staged three airstrikes against targets in Syria where military sources said weapons were being transferred to Hezbollah.
Syria currently deploys a relatively antiquated air defense system, “several generations old,” said Arieh Herzog, a former developer of Israel’s missile defenses. Herzog said Israeli warplanes could develop countermeasures to overcome the S-300 system, but it would take time.
Israel worries also that a battery of S-300s could be used to strike commercial airliners flying to and from the country’s main airport outside Tel Aviv.